Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Costa Rica: Monteverde- Love at First Sight

Leaving Fortuna was bittersweet, but we were certainly ready for some rainforest. First off, I have to talk about the drive. Fortuna and Monteverde are actually pretty close to each other, it just so happens there's a giant lake in between them you have to drive around. And wow, what a drive, with the most awful roads I have ever driven on. Thankfully (or not) it was pouring, and the rain helped us identify all of the pot holes
We found a great place on the way called Mystica, a local hotel that also offered homemade pizzas with garden-fresh ingredients. It was delicious! Beautiful views and a very friendly cat were also found. Highly recommended.
When we finally reached Monteverde, we knew it was special. The town is focused on both tourism and farming, and felt much more like a town than a large resort. Everyone was super friendly and helped us find great places to eat and things to see. I highly recommend stopping in at the Frog Museum, which allows you to see many of the natural species found in the surrounding rainforests all at the same time.

Monteverde is full of great places to hike, bird watch, and really experience all of the Costa Rican beauty.  If you came looking for big and flashy, look elsewhere.  We took night hikes, toured coffee and sugar plantations, and learned about wonderful rare birds.
Likewise, the food we found was both simple and pure.  We had dinner one night at Chimera, an amazing tapas restaurant where every dish was wonderful.  I highly recommend the cassoulet and the patacones (fried plantains).  Also, make sure and get one of their fresh cocktails.  Really good.

We also tried out an Italian place (in case you didn't notice, there is a large international presence in the country).  They grow a lot of their ingredients (just like Mystica), and the fresh eggplant ravioli I had was wonderful.  The best thing you can do is trust the locals, our resource was Sylvia who worked at the hotel Montana (where we stayed and highly recommended).  She sent us to some great places, and it was easily the best part of our trip
Our last night we stayed in San Jose, and we both needed something a bit different, so we headed down south a few blocks to Tin Jo, a delightful Chinese restaurant that serves authentic Chinese and other Pan-Asian specialties.  We dined on tempura spring rolls and tasty hot and sour soup, followed by Pad Thai (for my wife) and kung-pao prawns (for me).  The Pad Thai was some of the best either of us had tasted, with a good amount of heat, perfectly cooked noodles, and a zing of fresh cilantro on the end.  The kung-pao prawns was served in a cassava edible bowl and had nicely cooked squash and peppers along with a spicy sauce to coat the prawns.  All in all it was one of the best meals we had while in Costa Rica.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Costa Rica: Fortuna-You Stole My Heart, Then You Stole My Stuff

Actually starting our vacation in Costa Rica, we left San Jose pretty early to get a jump out to Fortuna. The trip, in our endlessly scorned Suzuki Jimmy (I yearned for a Rav 4) was uneventful and full of twists, turns, and two lane roads. When we arrived at our hotel we were met with by an iguana who was out sunning himself. We stayed at the Tilajari resort, which was an amazing place but a bit far from most of our planned destinations.
We visited the Tabacon hot springs first, which came complete with lunch, which was nice (sea bass ceviche) but felt like a typical "spa" meal. They did serve some chayote on the side, which was delicious. It's a squash that's extremely common in that area of the world and to me tastes like zucchini with much better texture. Also, hot springs are fantastic and highly recommended.

It rains a lot in the summer in Costa Rica, so most evenings are spent indoors eating and drinking. Costa Rica has a wonderful pilsner "Imperial", which I found was extremely refreshing after hot days, and also brews a darker ale called "". Both have a distinct fresh quality that most macro-brews in the states lack. And in case you are wondering, we did drink the water. And it was fine, and so were we.

We sought out Don Ruffino for dinner, a local place on the main drag in Fortuna. I specifically mention this place because it was so unbelievably delicious. I had Grandma's chicken, a half chicken marinated in a mole-style sauce and steamed in a banana leaf. Oh wow, was it tender and flavorful. Em had crab risotto with fish which was equally outstanding. And the dessert included strawberry beignets, which were as good as they sound.

I was really starting to like Fortuna! The next day we went hiking up the volcano and then zip-lining, which was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. Riding out 600 feet off the ground and seeing so much of the forest cannot be captured in simple words.
Then things started to go downhill. It started to pour during dinner, and I'm not just talking rain, I'm talking buckets. Dinner at La Chosa was awful; we went off a recommendation and found it to be a tourist trap complete with hilarious/awful drink choices and bland food. I'm also not a fan of elaborate garnishes (like cucumber flowers); I feel it adds nothing to my dish except price. Then we stopped to get a few souvenirs, only to return to our car two minutes later and find it had been broken into and our GPS stolen. Wow, what a turn of events. The police was super-unhelpful too, and it somewhat overshadowed most of our time in Fortuna.

My final thoughts about Fortuna are that it's a resort town, built up by people going to hot springs, but it has no other true industry, and has become somewhat of a party place with a seediness underneath. Monteverde? Never felt that, but here it seemed that there were two distinct towns living on top of each other, which led to an artificial resemblance of the entire place. I enjoyed some of my time, but if I return to Costa Rica, I won't be stopping by here.

More from the road, Monteverde, and a lot of birds tomorrow…

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Costa Rica: San Jose- Get Out Fast!

We just got back from a week long trip to Costa Rica, and it truly a great and eventful trip. We traveled to three cities, so I'm breaking up the posts to cover the distinct locations.

We arrived in San Jose in the early evening, picked up our rental car, and inserted ourselves into an onslaught of traffic and poor directions. San Jose is a large city, and Costa Rica doesn’t believe in street signs or addresses. Most locations are either "between street x and y" or more often "across from restaurant z". Never in my life have I been as grateful for a GPS (or distraught from not having one, but those are spoilers). Also, the direction of the streets changes depending on the hour. Fun times.
We stayed in San Jose on both our first and last night in the country. My recommendation? Don't. There is not much in San Jose to see as a tourist aside from a few museums, and depending on your location the surrounding neighborhood may not be close to anything worth while. We stayed at the Hotel Balmoral, which was essentially an interior room with a bed. Like I said, not too much of note. One tip, don't change money at a hotel in the city. hotels in other cities and banks offer much better exchange rates. You can get buy with dollars in the city for a night.

The first night in San Jose we were feeling snacky, so we took a trip to the nearby bakery and ended up with these snacks, a coconut cake (bit dry) and a chocolate cake (which was ok).

The next morning, I quickly noticed how early everyone is out and about in the city. People selling fresh fruit and trinkets line the streets as early as 6am. We were eager to get out to our next stop, so we popped down for a quick breakfast in the hotel. Breakfast in Costa Rica is simple and filling. You can expect fruit, breads, eggs, lighter sausages, and their traditional dish, gallo pinto. Gallo pinto is a mixture of precooked rice, black beans, and spices or chiles. The one I had in San Jose was the best I had all trip, complete with some green onions and fresh chiles.

More from our trip to Fortuna coming next…

Monday, August 15, 2011

Maru Sushi

Maru Sushi is out of place in West Lafayette. I'm not saying we don't have good food around here, we do, but Maru, it's on another level. I've had sushi in on the east coast and the west coast, but Maru is consistently my favorite.

Let me make a declaration first, Maru does not dabble in the high end, super expensive tuna cheek you can find if you travel with Anthony Bourdain, rather, they make really good nigiri and rolls that you can find variations of throughout the country. They just do it better, and you can stuff yourself for $20 or less

I dined at Maru Sushi last Friday for date night with my wife. The meal begins with water, soda, sake, or hot tea. The tea is barley, and is great even in the summer. No matter what you get on the menu, you are always presented with a few small appetizers such as pickled daikon, bean sprouts in sesame oil, or cucumbers with chili sauce. You also get a small bowl of miso soup. For free! Who does that? I'm surprised Texas Roadhouse still gives us peanuts.

When perusing the menu at Maru, there are loads of choices to please the sushi-fanatic and the sushi-phobe. For sushi, their platters are quite good, but the rolls are where the good stuff is. Crunch munch, white castle, chauncy, and the dragon are some of my favorites. Each are prepared with artistic detail and have a combination of fish and sauces that make you want more.

There are also noodles, noodle soups, and a few tempura dishes on the expansive menu. One item you need to take note of though, is the kopdol bibimbap. You see, Maru also serves some Korean food. And this dish, this is what I go back for time and time again. It's white rice, shitaki mushrooms, spinach, carrots, bean sprouts, bulgogi (a marinated beef), and a runny egg on top, all served in a very hot stone pot. You add some homemade chile sauce on top and mix. The rice gets crispy from the hot stone, the chile and egg fuse to make a binding, rich sauce, and the plethora of vegetables are all wonderfully cooked. Hungry yet? I am. Best part, it's $10. That's it!

Maru is one of my favorite places to eat in town, for lunch or dinner. It gets quite packed around dinner time, so plan accordingly, or you can order takeout or even delivery if you're close by.

111 N Chauncey Ave, West Lafayette, IN
(765) 743-2646 ‎

5/5 Sheepdogs

For other restaurant reviews in the Lafayette, Indiana area, you can visit my dedicated page or Eat'n Local

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Just Jammin

It's year three of jam making at my house, and it's still just as much fun as it was the first time, though quite a bit less messy. Growing up, homemade jam was a treasure that arrived from my grandma ever so often. I always thought it was magical and must take days to make. I also believed in Santa, so what does that say?

Jam making is really easy. If you own a large pot and a dishwasher, you can make jam. Don't go out and buy all that fancy equipment, you don’t need it unless you plan on starting a canning business. The only special piece of equipment I recommend is a canning funnel, simply because it makes adding jam to jars much easier. Other than that you need some water, some tongs, a spoon, and preferably a partner who can help you set up an assembly line.

The key point to jam making is cleanliness. You boil your lids and utensils to prevent contamination, so after they are boiled, try not to touch anything except the clean jars.

Mason jars, mason jar screw bands, mason jar lids (lids are not reusable)
Big spoon
Small spoon (teaspoon)
Canning funnel
Big pot
Slightly smaller pot
Kitchen towel
Wet paper towel

Blueberry-Strawberry Jam (adapted from a pectin insert)
Yields ~8 cups jam (do not double because pectin will not set, always make in smaller batches)

4 cups crushed fruit- This is about 4 pints of fruit, I usually split it down the middle between the two fruits, sometimes a bit heavier on strawberry
7 cups sugar
½ lemon, juiced
1 package liquid pectin

Wash jars in dishwasher. The best seal is hot jars with hot lids, so plan accordingly. In the smaller pot, fill ¾ full with water and add bands, tongs, ladle, small spoon, funnel, and lids. Bring water to just under a boil.

Cut up strawberries and lightly crush to achieve 2 cups crushed fruit. Crush blueberries to fill remaining two cups. Add to high-sided pot along with sugar and lemon juice. Heat pot over medium-high heat, stirring often with spoon until it comes to a rolling boil (it will expand, which is why you need the high sides). Add liquid pectin and return to a boil. Boil for 1 minute while stirring constantly and then turn off heat. Using little spoon skim off any foam off top.

Ladle hot jam into clean jars using funnel, filling to within 1/8 inch of top. Using tongs, carefully cover with flat lids, wipe any jam off sides with wet paper towel, and then place screw band over lid. Using the kitchen towel to protect your hands, screw bands on tightly. Invert jars for 5-10 minutes. After, turn jars upright to check seal. If lid springs back, the jar is not sealed yet and should be inverted for 10 more minutes. If it still springs back, the seal is bad and you must refrigerate the jam. Jam can be stored in a cool dark place for 1-1.5 years, and can be refrigerated open for 1 month.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Grilled Green Chile Chicken Pizza

It’s hot here. It's hot everywhere. It's that stretch of summer where I refuse to turn on my oven because it heats my house up by 25 degrees. No thank you very much. This leads to a lot of grilling, which I did plenty of this past weekend (along with some cold beer). Saturday night I was I was feeling pizza, which I normally make with fresh tomatoes from the garden, but those are still a few weeks away. I did have some leftover grilled sweet corn and fresh green chiles I pulled out of my garden.

As is apparent, from my Southwest roots I developed an appetite for all things green chile. This is no exception, and along with the delicious peak season sweet corn, it turned out fabulous. If you're in a pinch, you can use leftover roast chicken instead of grilling your own, but make sure to spice it before sprinkling it over your pizza.

Grilled Green Chile Chicken Pizza
Makes 3 16-inch pizzas

Dough (adapted from Alton Brown)
3 cups flour (16oz)
2 ½ teaspoons yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/3 cups warm water

4 tomatillos, husks removed
2 green chiles
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
½ teaspoon sugar

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to even thickness
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
4 medium ears sweet corn, grilled or boiled, cut off the cob
6 ounces Mozzarella cheese

For the dough: Combine the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Start the mixer on low, using the hook attachment, and mix until the dough just comes together, approximately 1 1/2 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium and knead for 15 minutes. Be careful as your mixer may try to walk off the counter.

Tear off a small piece of dough and flatten into a disk. Gently stretch the dough until thin. Hold it up to the light and look to see if a see-through, taut membrane has formed. The dough will be quite sticky, but manageable. Fold the dough onto itself and form it into a smooth ball. Lightly oil the bowl of your mixer (olive oil or cooking spray). Place the dough in the bowl and roll it around to coat with the oil. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature to double in size, approximately 1 hour.

Split the dough into 3 equal, and then flatten each piece into a disk on the countertop. Form each piece into a ball. Roll each ball on the counter until they tighten into rounds. Cover the balls with a tea towel and rest for 45 minutes. While that's happening you can prepare everything else.

For the sauce: Preheat grill to high heat, grill chiles and tomatillos over direct heat, turning occasionally, until soft and charred. Let chiles cool for 5 minutes, remove skins, stems, and seeds. Place tomatillos, chiles, cilantro, and sugar in a food processor and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper

For chicken: Season chicken with salt, pepper, cumin, and coriander. Place on grill and cook, lid down, for 4 minutes. Move chicken to cooler part of grill (keep main burner on high but keep chicken off of direct heat) and grill, lid down, until chicken reaches internal temperature of 165°F, abut 5-6 minutes. Remove from grill and rest for 5 minutes. Shred with fork.

Assemble: Return all burners to high on grill, close lid. Lightly flour the countertop and flatten 1 of the dough balls. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a 16-inch round, rotating the dough as you go. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured pizza peel and stretch to re-shape if necessary (it will likely shrink so you may need to let it rest and then roll it out a bit more).

Oil grill grates and turn all burners to medium. Brush the dough with a small amount of olive oil and flip onto the hot grill. Close the lid and cook until the bottom of the crust is golden brown, 1-2 minutes. Brush the top side of the dough with a small amount of olive oil, then immediately flip using the peel or tongs. Spread 1/3 of the sauce over the pizza, sprinkle 1/3 of the chicken and corn followed by 1/3 of the cheese. Close the lid and cook until the bottom of crust is golden brown and the cheese has melted, another 1 to 2 minutes. Using the peel, remove the pizza to a cooling rack and let rest for 3-5 minutes before slicing. You can also hold them in a warm oven set to 200°F. Repeat with remaining pizzas and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

DIY Fruit Spirits

After reading a magazine article about making flavored alcohol, I gave it a whirl.  I don't know why I never did this before!  Making my own infused spirits was not only easy, it was delicious!  I now have a rotating supply of spirits in my refrigerator depending on what's in season and on sale at the store.

The above picture uses strawberry vodka, and I also have peach and blueberry versions in the fridge at the moment.  It's rather simple

You need:
A clear spirit such as vodka or rum
mason jar

Cut the fruit into 1 inch pieces, or if using blueberries, give them a light mash.  Place in mason jar, cover with the desired spirit, screw the lid on, and give it a few gentle shakes.  Keep in the refrigerator and invert to stir every 2-3 days.  Most are ready after 2 weeks depending on how much flavor you want to infuse.  Strain off the fruit into a clean jar.  Keeps...well, I'm not sure, I usually run out before then.

For strawberry, I recommend a simple spritzer.  Juice half a lime into a class, add 2 ounces strawberry vodka, and top with soda water.

For peach, you could try Peach Sangria from one of my fellow bloggers over at "What's Cookin'"

I'm hoping I can work the blueberry into some sort of martini.  Ideas?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Artichoke Mania Part 3: Pasta

Whew! Now I had cleaned and braised my artichokes. It seems like a lot of work, but one batch of braised hearts can make at least 2 main courses (or you can make more at a time). I've had the jarred hearts, and I feel the homemade ones were much tastier. Uses? Let me count the ways. You can work it into a salad (use the braising liquid for the base of a vinaigrette), I made artichoke risotto with grilled fish, you can chop them up and make dip, or you can even make a pasta sauce.

The wonderful bit about artichokes is how earthy they make a dish taste. This recipe, from Tom Colicchio's "Think Like a Chef", was instantly a hit in my house. It's a comforting dish and easy to make (as long as you have the artichokes on hand). I love the beans in it, don't leave them out!

Pasta with Artichokes, Cabbage, and White Beans
Adapted from Tom Colicchio

4 braised artichokes (or 1 medium jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained), sliced
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, cut into large pieces
5 green onions, trimmed and sliced into 3 inch pieces
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed
1 cup chicken stock
1 pound pasta (I prefer rotini)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan or Romano cheese

Heat a large pot with water until boiling.  Salt, add cabbage and cook until just barely tender, 3 minutes.  Drain and rinse under cold water.  Return pot to high heat with fresh water (and salt) and boil pasta until al dente, 8 minutes.  Drain.

In a large pot over medium heat, add artichoke hearts, cabbage, green onions, beans, chicken stock and bring to a simmer.  Season with thyme, salt, and pepper.  Add pasta and butter and stir, adjust seasonings to desired level.  Serve topped with Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zucchini Lasagna

A few months back I was watching Bobby Flay get his butt kicked over vegetable lasagna on Throwdown when my wife uttered the phrase "I would eat squash if you cooked it like that". I've probably mentioned before my wife loathes all things "squish".  I wasn't going to grow any in the garden this year because I feared divorce her wrath over it. But now I had the go ahead, so there was no way I was passing it up.

One main philosophy I'm trying to stick with in my blog is what's in season, and therefore usually inexpensive (or on sale). Now that it's summer zucchini is plentiful at both the market and in my garden. I retrieved the recipe from the episode as a starting point and got to work. The great difference about this recipe is the lack of noodles. The zucchini, lightly fried, are the noodles. Modified as such, it works as mostly as a traditional lasagna does. When I get tomatoes from my garden to make my own sauce, watch out.
My wife insisted this was "the best thing I have made in a long time".  For a squashaphobe I consider that a big win.  A few health benefits to throw in at the end. This is vegetarian and if you use potato flour you can also make it gluten free. It's also 660 calories for ¼ of the pan (I even measured total volume of oil absorbed from frying), which is a large portion. Beat that, Olive Garden.  And Bobby Flay.

Zucchini Lasagna

Tomato Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
6 fresh basil leaves, chopped fine
salt and pepper

3/4 cup flour
3 eggs + 6 egg whites
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
2 cups Canola oil for frying
2 large zucchini, sliced lengthwise about 1/4-thick (use a mandolin if you have it)
salt and pepper

1 pounds light ricotta cheese
6 basil leaves, chopped fine
1 egg
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
salt and pepper

8 ounces shredded mozzarella

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

For the tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the onion, cook until softened.  Add garlic and cook additional 30 seconds.  Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and basil and bring to a simmer. Lower heat to maintain simmer, partially cover, and cook for 30-40 minutes or until thickened.

For the ricotta: in a bowl mix the ricotta, egg, garlic, Romano, salt, and pepper.

For the zucchini: While sauce is simmering, heat oil in large pot or skillet over medium high heat to 350-375°F. Place the flour on a plate. In a glass baking dish (long enough to hold one long slice of zucchini), mix the eggs, egg whites, Romano cheese, salt, and pepper, and Romano cheese with a fork.  Coat the zucchini slices in flour, then dip in the egg mixture, fry on each side until golden brown.  Remove and place on tray lined with paper towels.  Repeat with remaining zucchini, keeping oil temperature around 350°F.

To assemble: In a 9x13  baking dish, spread a small amount of tomato sauce on bottom.  Layer 1/3 of the fried zucchini to cover the bottom of the dish, slightly overlapping the pieces.  Using a spatula, spread 1/3 of the tomato sauce over the zucchini followed by 1/3 of the ricotta mixture and 1 ounce mozzarella. Repeat layering the zucchini, sauce, ricotta, and mozzarella, ending with remaining mozzarella.

Cover the dish in foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until the top is slightly brown, about 15 minutes more. Cool the lasagna for 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Indian Fry Bread

I'm going to get throttled for writing about Indian fry bread and not cooking it soon for my wife. It's a risk I'm willing to take. These pop up at festivals and are covered in sugar or honey, but if you live in the Southwest you can find the savory version with beans, lettuce, and salsa. That's what I'm focusing on here.
This dish revolves around the beans. Without great refried beans, you will not have great fry bread. Thankfully making great beans is a 10 minute process, so fear not. Em makes the best beans (my mom makes her cook them whenever we have this as a family), which started as my dad's recipe years ago. I insist, buy the fat free beans. Add your own fat into them in the form of bacon grease. THIS makes the beans. If you don’t have a container of bacon drippings in your refrigerator, I have to ask why not?
I love to top mine with lettuce, tomato, cheese, salsa, and even some guacamole. Creamy beans and sour cream, the crunch of the fry bread and lettuce, and the tang of guacamole. Close your eyes and imagine how delicious that sounds. Corn, chiles, onions, whatever you want. Have a party!

Indian Fry Bread

Dough (makes ~ 10-12)
2 cups flour plus extra for rolling
2 teaspoon salt
8 teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ cups warm water
Canola oil for frying

1 can fat-free refried beans (I prefer Rosarita)
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
2 tablespoons milk
¼ cup shredded Colby-jack cheese

Chopped iceberg lettuce or cabbage
Sour cream
Diced green onions
Shredded cheese
Diced tomatoes

To make the beans, heat the bacon drippings in a small pot over medium heat until melted. Add beans and combine. Add milk and cheese and stir to combine. When beans start to bubble reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.

Heat oil (enough for at least 1 inch deep) to 350-375°C in a wide skillet. To make dough, combine dry ingredients in medium bowl. Slowly add warm water, mixing until a moist dough forms. Break off ~1/2 cup of dough and place on a floured surface. Sprinkle a bit of flour on top and roll to ~1/8 inch thickness. Using your finger poke a hole in the center (this prevents it from inflating too much in the oil). Gently place in oil and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Adjust oil temperature as needed. Flip and cook other side. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate to remove excess oil. Repeat with remaining dough (depending on size of skillet, you can cook 1-2 at the same time).

To build, spread beans on fry bread followed by sour cream and guacamole (if using). Top with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, green onions, and salsa.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Artichoke Mania Part 2- The Braise

You can see Cleaning Instructions Here.

After cleaning, I now had artichoke hearts to cook, but what's the best approach? My favorite prep is a braise, which gives the hearts a deep flavor and provides you with other components to add with the hearts. If you cannot find fresh you can use frozen hearts from the market.

To put this into perspective here, I decided on a whim to do all of this on a Tuesday night. Yes, my planning stages should be more thought out. Oh well, that's the life I lead.

You can also, for vegetarian or pork hating reasons, leave out the bacon. But that's like leaving your child outside at night. Just saying.

Braised Artichokes
adapted from Tom Colicchio

8 cleaned artichoke hearts or 1 bag frozen hearts
2 slices bacon, sliced (optional)
1 onion, sliced thin
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 cup cup dry white wine

In a large pot over medium heat, render bacon for 3-5 minutes (if using) and 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Add onion, carrots, and celery to the pot along with some salt.  Lower heat to medium-low and cook until tender, 10-15 minutes.  Add garlic and cook for another minute.

Place artichokes in pot and season with salt and pepper.  Add 2 more tablespoons olive oil (if desired), bay leaves, thyme, and rosemary.  Mix and arrange hearts in a single layer and white wine.  Add water to cover artichokes and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Partially cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer until artichokes are tender and have little resistance when pierced with a knife (about 25-30 minutes).  Cool and store in refrigerator for up to a week.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Taco Salad

My family's taco salad is something I have to explain to people each time I bring it to a picnic. Mostly to convince them that, in fact, it is a real thing. It's always eaten, always loved, but people approach it with...well, skepticism. Maybe it's the Catalina dressing, maybe it's the Frito's, I don't know. All I know is that it's delicious and if you need a really quick side to take to an event, boom, here it is (sorry no pictures, can't find them).

I don't know where this recipe started, but I did a quick Google search and can find only a similar version that Paula Deen makes with meat and salsa. Pretty sure my great-grandmother was not influenced by the Food Network, so I'm going to call it a wash.

What about you, dear readers, do you have some off-kilter dish in your family that may seem bananas but is delicious?

Taco Salad

1 large head iceberg lettuce, chopped into about 1-inch pieces
1 onion, diced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 can ranch style beans
8 ounces cheddar or Colby-jack cheese, shredded
1 7-8 ounce bag Frito's, crushed
1 16-ounce bottle Catalina dressing

Quick tip: If you would prefer a milder onion flavor, rinse the chopped onions under water for a few seconds and let drain.

Combine lettuce, onion, tomatoes, beans, and cheese in a large bowl (this can be done ahead of time). Immediately before serving add Frito's and 3/4 of the bottle of dressing. Mix well, if salad seems dry add remaining dressing. Enjoy immediately.


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"Poooooo-len-ta." If you ever read "Heat" by Bill Buford, those words ring true and somewhat intimidating. Polenta is, like a lot of Italian dishes, easy to do mediocre but difficult to do great (that's just my opinion).

I have made polenta four times. Two times it was a disaster. The first I made was a soft polenta, which was good but pretty bland. The second time I tried I made a pan seared polenta from Anne Burrell. Honestly, I was not a fan, it was a little herby for me and WAY to salty (that was my own fault). Third times a charm, right? Considering polenta was getting ready to make the banned list in my house, I certainly hoped so. I went down to the store and bought some more (I buy it from the grain sections in a health food store, you can buy it by weight and it's generally fresher and higher quality) and gave it one more go.

The polenta I made was different, slightly Spanish in style, and grilled. I used smoked paprika, some mascarpone cheese (carryover from the previous polenta), parsley, herbs, and a combination of milk and water. One thing I immediately discovered. Mascarpone, while a favorite of many chefs, doesn't really do anything for me here in polenta. I would actually save myself the money and use cream cheese or some other really soft cheese. Just a preference, but I'm on a budget here.

The key with polenta is the stirring. You have to stir it, not all the time, but enough so it absorbs all of the liquid and develops a nice, silky texture. You also have to let it cook for a while, even if that means adding a bit more liquid again and again. Your patience will be rewarded.

This is the recipe for "hard" polenta, I will post my recent success for "soft" polenta later this week.

Grilled Polenta

1 cup milk
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup cream cheese
olive oil

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat combine the the milk, water, paprika, chile powder, and cayenne. Bring to a boil (be careful to stir and not scald the milk) and season with salt, a bit generously.

Slowly pour in polenta while whisking.  Once incorporated, use a heat proof spatula or wooden spoon to stir polenta constantly until thick.  If it becomes very thick add a bit more water to loosen it up.  You will probably need to do this multiple times.  Cook until polenta is smooth, about 25-30 minutes.  It should not be grainy when you taste it.  Stir in parsley and cream cheese. Season with salt to taste and remove from heat. Line a 9x9 baking pan with plastic wrap or parchment paper and pour polenta into pan.  Cover top with plastic wrap and press into a smoothed, even surface.  Place in refrigerator for 2-24 hours.

To Grill: Preheat grill to high heat, scrape down grates and oil well.  Remove polenta from pan and pat dry with paper towels.  Cut into squares and brush with olive oil liberally.  Once grill is hot grill polenta for about 3 minutes on each side or until nicely crisp on the outside.

To Pan Fry: Preheat a non-stick skillet over medium high heat and add olive oil to coat.  Cut polenta into squares, pat dry with paper towels and add to pan, cook until golden brown on each side.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Grilled Pork Chops and Soft Polenta

Oops.  I promised a recipe for soft polenta weeks ago, and then got sidetracked by artichokes.  More on that next week.  Not much writing for this, but polenta now!

I've made both hard and soft polenta, and soft is my favorite.  It's creamy, nutty, chewy, and it pairs well with many grilled meats or roasts.  This time I tried out an interpretation of Mario Bataili's grilled pork chops with spicy peppers.  It was a home run in my eyes.  Enjoy!
Grilled Pork Chops with Spicy Peppers  

4 thick cut pork chops (~8oz), bone in
1/4 cup salt and 1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in 6 cups water
1 red onion, chopped 
2 red or yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
pinch cayenne
1/2 cup sliced spicy cherry peppers from a jar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Soft Polenta
1 cup dry polenta or coarse ground cornmeal
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cups water
salt and pepper
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese

For the chops:  Add chops to salted water and brine in refrigerator for at least 4 hours to overnight.  

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add red onion and bell pepper to pan and cook until soft, about 5-7 minutes.  Add sugar, cayenne, and season with salt and pepper.  Reduce heat to medium low and cook vegetables tender, stirring often for 8-10 minutes.  Stir in sliced cherry peppers, keep warm.

Meanwhile, remove pork from brine and pat dry.  Season with pepper and a slight pinch of salt.  Heat a grill to high heat and grill pork chops directly on heat until they reach 140°C, about 5 minutes per side.  Serve pork chops with pepper mixture and drizzle each chop with 1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.

For the polenta: In a medium pot bring milk and water to a boil, season well with salt.  Gradually whisk in polenta and reduce heat to medium.  Stir with wooden spoon often and cook for 30-40 minutes or until polenta is smooth and soft, adding additional water to keep polenta loose as needed.  Once cooked, add Parmesan and season with salt and pepper.